With an unemployment figure of over two
million people, a sinking pound, a crumbling property market and crashing
banks, I expected some kind of post-war depression when I arrived in London,
But my first
sight was spring sunshine, heavy boots of builders simultaneously crushing
daisies, hooting cheerily at a woman with a saucy walk, while shovelling
down hefty ham sandwiches. The hoteliers didn’t seem bothered about reducing
their prices. The men smoking their hookahs closed their eyes as the sun
warmed their faces, and apple-flavour tobacco penetrated their mouths. On
the tube, parents were telling their wiggling, screaming children to stop
mucking about, shut up and eat their chips while they read the sports pages.
sat demurely in a park eating their biscuits on their break.
I forgot about Westminster Abbey’s church bells. Also, how fast people walk.
Old women, children, people in wheelchairs, women with prams, men with
sticks pass us on the pavement, brisker than the sudden gusts of wind.
of churches are filled with notices of concerts to come—Vivaldi, Bach, the
Gregorian chants. The tube stops in a tunnel for no reason and everybody
tries to look at nobody. Thousands of shoes chorus up stairs in rush hour. A
beautiful girl in tall shoes and short skirt and red, red lipstick steps out
an elevator and kisses her waiting boyfriend. This is London. The same as it
always was. Yet, it’s not. Nothing will be the way it was.
the last decade, between the terror attacks in London, Mumbai and New York;
between the crash on Wall Street and the rise of the reality show celebrity;
and the worldwide phenomenon of Facebook and blogs, the world shed yet
another skin and changed for all of us irretrievably. We are looking at one
another’s lives through machines, use fewer words to write, need to read
less, surf more to get by. Still, it’s England, and here in a sleepy station
in Hassocks, where friends meet us with warm hugs, the air smells of freshly
cut grass, streets are cobbled, lanes are narrow, homes are 16th Century,
and we feast on pub lunches of fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.
In an Oxfam
shop back in London, a woman tells me that more than 13 million people in
the UK live in poverty—that’s one in five of the population. Many people
can’t afford essential clothing, or to heat their homes. Children go to
school hungry, or to bed without enough food. It’s not so different from
Mumbai, where the slums are hidden from tourists, or the sad trailer parks
in the US. The old rules are changing irretrievably. The old world is
peeling away from us faster than we know.
Barack Obama is the leader of the free world today, and in England, where
people from all over the Commonwealth sent their children for a solid
education and the Queen’s English, the Education Ministry is phasing in a
new curriculum for primary students to learn how to twitter and blog and
podcast. In Cambridge, things appear unchanged. In this magnificent seat of
learning, a university made up of many colleges, Trinity alone—founded by
Henry VIII—produced 31 Nobel Prize winners.
students flying around on their bikes, their coats and skirts whipping in
the wind, hands-free; where spring rages in a dusty gold in college gardens
sprung with daffodils, beds of bluebells and fresh vines entwining ancient
trees, it is still easy to think of a life of unending possibilities.
courtyards, Gonville and Caius (founded in 1348) in St Johns Clare’s, St
Catherine's, Queens, Corpus Christi, and Pembroke amidst vast wooden gates,
gargoyles, cobbled lanes suffused with the spirit of Isaac Newton and Darwin
(girls oblivious of their beauty discuss Milton with their tutors on the
street), it is easy to be a voyeur of timeless England.
Cambridge tutors embrace the influence of Jane Goody, a school drop-out,
whose parents were on drugs, and who died recently of cervical cancer. She
was so uneducated, she thought East Anglia was another country, was called a
racist and bully on talk shows, but somehow, her honesty, curiosity, and
willingness to learn, apologise and educate millions of women about cervical
cancer triumphed over ignorance, as did her drive to sell her story while
she was dying to create a fund so her two small sons “would have the
education she would never have.”
died this month, a public death at age 27, her obituary was on the front
pages of every newspaper in the country. She left £100,000 to children’s
charities in India. She overcome class, socio economic odds, to become
England’s sweetheart, defied by many, the princess of Bermondsey. There are
so many ways of giving back to this world, chief among them dying
courageously at 27, providing for your children’s future, publicising your
experience so others would be spared of the same fate simply by doing a Pap
are, I am happy to report, best foot forward, chin up, stiff upper lip and
all that, but seriously, embracing the new, keeping the old, taking the
recession with stoicism and quirky wit of remembered post-war years.
So, I close
with a recipe for hard times pulled out of the Guardian from Heaths Good
Potato Dishes, which the writer called a genuinely exciting discovery: “Bake
some large potatoes in their jackets, cut them in half and scoop out most of
the flesh. Put in a layer of spinach puree, break an egg, into each, season
them and bake them in the oven until the egg is ready.”